July 22, 2010
I have America's Tastemaker (tm), NPR Music, to thank for turning me onto this album, which is absolutely stellar, one of my new favorites. The opening (title) track, “Thistled Spring,” is just about as heart-breaking and lovely as a song can get. No surprise that NPR featured it as a song of the day. I have been listening to this song for weeks now and still can’t get enough. There's something about that descending cello line in the string arrangement that gets me every single time. The rest of the album may not be quite as good as that leadoff track, but I still absolutely love it, start to finish. Hushed and emotional without being a total downer – truly, a fine line to walk – and delicate without feeling derivative of all the other contemporary, folk-and-indie-influenced beard-bands happening right now, my new best friend, the admittedly bearded bandleader Justin Ringle, hits the sweet spot. Put a small-but-lush string section (quartet?) behind a sedate folk band with occasional male/female vocal harmonies and you've got a recipe designed to go, like the Pulp Fiction injection, straight to my heart. I love it! LOVE IT!!!
Teenage Fanclub - Shadows
Without knowing about their long and impressive history, I was turned on to Teenage Fanclub's last album (from all the way back in 2005!), "Man-Made," which I completely fell in love with. This recent album doesn't necessarily pick up where that previous effort left off, but it's an album complete with hummable, catchy tunes -- a totally pleasureable listen from beginning to end. While nothing particularly stands out or blows me away, I listen to, and enjoy, so much depressing and/or moody music (see above and below) that it's great to have the occasional breath of fresh, pure, sunshiney pop music once in a while, even if it doesn't redefine rock & roll or whatever.
Mumford & Sons - Sigh No More
I was initially skeptical about this band, although I’m not quite sure why. It must be the same baseless stubbornness that kept me away from The Avett Brothers for so long, a band I now love, and a band that has certainly influenced Mumford & Sons, big time. Mumford's peculiar brand of British-cum-neo-Americana folk (um, right?) came highly recommended from Greg (remember that guy? me neither!), and others, so I should have embraced them sooner. But they did seem a little like Avett Brothers knockoffs (and I think they are, a little), and while I don’t think their debut album is quite as great as everybody else seems to, it’s still pretty damn good; when they really let loose on the banjo and turn up the bombast (usually in the middle or towards the end of each song) it is nothing if not toe-tappingly, absolutely infectious. Imagine The Avett Brothers plus a healthy dollop of The Pogues and a soupcon of Fleet Foxes! Yes, a soupcon! My simple criticisms are that some of the lyrics tend towards the simplistic, and the songs can get formulaic (in the same way that every Frames song ever starts out whisper-quiet and then builds to a crashing, thrashing conclusion). Mumford & Sons’ songs alternate between quiet and pounding, banjo-driven bluster with unfortunate regularity. Actually, now that I think about it, there’s also a fair amount of growly, Glen Hansard-style theatrics in these guys, on top of their Pogues- and Avett-influences. Anyway, as gimmicks go, being a tight enough band to snap back and forth from rocking to whispering in a flash isn’t a bad gimmick to have, but it IS the same thing over and over. I like it, but it’s repetitive. That's all I'm sayin'. Lest anyone think I’m being overly critical, this is still a very good album and I look forward to hearing more from these crazy Brits. Pip pip!
July 21, 2010
I don't mean to be a Scrooge, but I wasn't as passionate about "Toy Story 3." I had watched the second one that afternoon with my nephews and I had forgotten how much fun that movie is. The plot chugs along and the whole thing is a zippy ninety minutes. In contrast, "TS3" seemed to take a long time to get started, and the whole thing hinges on which of Andy's toys he's going to bring to college with him. WHAT? Here's your answer, Andy: NEITHER OF THEM. Why don't you just hang the "I'm Worth the Wait" banner over your bed? I spent the middle half of the movie imagining scenes from "Toy Story 4," where Woody gets splashed with bong water as he watches scenes of awkward deflowering in mure horror. The final action sequence also manages to pull off the weird feat of recalling both "United 93" and the Holocaust in a children's film, while also showing us exactly where our trash goes. I get it, Pixar: I WILL RECYCLE.
But I don't mean to be so down on the movie. It was pleasant, and I was surprised by how frequently it displayed problems that didn't offer any easy solutions. But by the time the tear-jerking finale rolled around, I was more conscious of having my heartstrings pulled than actually having said strings tugged.
July 19, 2010
I don’t go to many concerts, and when I do, I typically stick to the smaller venues – your Schubas, Martyrs, Hideouts, Lincoln Halls, etc – which means I tend to see the as-yet unknowns and the young up-and-comers, your Tift Merritts, Hems, Great Lake Swimmers, etc, of the world. As with all things, my approach has upsides and downsides. Upsides: I love seeing music in intimate rooms, I get introduced to all kinds of cool artists I might not seek out, I can say “I saw them when” after they explode. Downsides: I don’t see a lot of acts I may love because they are just too big to play any of the venues I frequent.
But this past Thursday, I both checked out a new venue and got to see someone I never really thought I’d get to see. The venue: SPACE in Evanston; the artist: Loudon Wainwright III. I have displayed my affection for Loudon here before, and to some extent grew up hearing his voice. So it was a peculiar thrill to see him live, in person, up-close and personal. (And SPACE gets you up-close-and-personal pretty much anywhere you may sit; it’s a great...um...space, and sounds absolutely fantastic. The opening act, the very talented and intriguing Meg Hutchinson, remarked that she was playing all her songs slow because she loved how they sounded in the room. And she was right, because everything sounded crisp, clear, not overly loud but not at all quiet either. SPACE, two thumbs up!)
My wife and I took my visiting parents – the original LWIII fans! – to the show and both seemed like they had a blast. My mom remarked that he (Loudon) seemed totally present, not checked out, not just going through the motions, but really engaged: annoyed at the annoying assholes who started yelling requests as soon as he finished his first song (!!!), amused as he shamelessly plugged his new CD, sly on the sardonic songs, heartfelt on the sad ones. For a guy who Wikipedia informs me is 63 (and pushing 64) and has been performing solo acoustic sets since the 1960s, I admit that I’m impressed by this involvement. Of course, the guy’s a good actor and could well have been mentally a zillion miles away the entire time. But he sure didn’t seem that way. He seemed sharp, funny, charismatic, and in great voice. His new songs, off a new record, 10 Songs for the New Depression, perhaps didn’t rise to the heights of More Love Songs or History, but were still great. Let's face it: the guy is still relevant and vibrant and if he’s slowed down, it’s only barely. Hearing his songs played live -- some familiar, some new -- really made me appreciate just what great a great songwriter he is. I mean, a really great songwriter -- for as many of his songs may be jokey or of-a-particular-time (running the gamut of references from Bob Geldof to Paul Krugman (at verious times)), just as many are really, truly, impressively timeless. As a lover of words, his songs appeal to me in a rare way.
Beyond the music, this was a real cultural experience. My wife and I may have been some of the younger folks in the crowd (by what looked to be a wide margin), but everybody seemed to be having a great, amped-up time. A funny mix of nostalgia and edgy relevance swirled inside that room. Loudon seemed to want to prove that he has still got it and the crowd to prove that they still get it. For me, it was a wonderful thing to see this tall, funny guy with a voice I’ve heard for years in the flesh. I hope I get to see him again someday.
July 7, 2010
The Survival of Bookstores, Cont'd: It's All About the Benjamins (Stupid), or, My Undercover Field Trip
But the buying of the books was actually secondary to the greater purpose of Saving Independent Bookshops. A few months ago, I posted a mini-rant in response to a blog post by Jeff Waxman, a bookseller at the Seminary Co-Op, an old and famed independent bookshop here in Chicago. My response to his blog touched off a bunch of comments – a truly rare occurrence here at this sleepy, under-trafficked corner of the great blog-world – including further thoughts from Mr. Waxman himself.
Then, a couple weeks ago, during one of my obsessive examinations of the largely non-existent traffic on this poor blog (whither Greg?), I noticed a recent spike of visitors to my aforementioned post; these visitors were coming from The Constant Conversation, a lit-blog I check every so often, affiliated with the larger literary website, The Quarterly Conversation. Curious, I checked out the actual post from whence came these visitors, and saw that it revolved once again around the fate of indie bookshops – with comments (once again) from my old friend Jeff Waxman! (You can see, if you click the previous, that I have commented as well.)Generally – as before – I appreciate the passion Jeff Waxman, Matt Jakubowski (who posted the item), and all the other commenters have for the subject. Yet, as before, the conversation seems unnecessarily infused with both snobbery and self-pity; blaming people for not shopping at independent stores never fails to annoy me. I would much rather the folks who wring their hands over this state of affairs put their energies towards improving their business model, or toward improving the value that they add to the book-buying process – thereby justifying their higher prices – and then turning around and convincing the general public of that added value instead of complaining that the world has changed and people don't get it. I confess that I bristle a little at the implication that I, and others like me who shop for books online, just don't get it. On the contrary, I think I get it better than most. I have a great deal of love bookstores of all sorts -- indie, used, chain, and online. What I don't have a lot of is money ($$).
One point, well made in the comments by Matt Jakubowski, did hit home with me to some extent -- namely, that Amazon (or some oligopolistic combo of Amazon and, say, WalMart) could eventually control all bookselling, leaving us readers at the whims and mercies of a massive corporation or two. Aside from this remark, there seems to be precious little steak with all the rhetorical sizzle in this debate. I do agree, though, with Matt’s contention; I wouldn’t want a small number of huge companies deciding what can, or should, be published and/or read, but that still seems a very far-off concern, and somewhat far-fetched at that. If nothing else, I'd argue that publishing anything in 2010 has become easier than ever, and the choices/distribution methods for quality reading are expanding at such a rate no human could possibly keep up. So the concern over one bookseller having too far-reaching a control raises my hackles, but I don’t see that as an immediate or realistic concern at this point. Until further notice, the vast power and reach of the internet mitigates such worries.
What I see here are people – booksellers, primarily, who have "skin in the game" – passionately defending their own particular way of life on moral terms rather than practical terms. Hear me, independent booksellers of the world: you are going about this the wrong way! Appeal to people’s pocketbooks, not their hearts! Worry about their dollars, not their souls! In other words: it’s the economy, stupid! If you have no economic case to make for yourselves, you better start working on one or just forget about it. Harsh, but I truly believe it.
Which brings me back to my two new books. With all this in mind I decided to go on a field trip to the famed, aforementioned, much threatened Seminary Co-Op. Had I taken public transportation (as I mentioned in my comment on The Constant Conversation) it would have cost me $4.50 and at least an hour in each direction, but because it was a beautiful summer weekend I rolled down my windows and drove down Lake Shore Drive to Hyde Park (gas cost = who knows, but probably depressing). I felt a little like an “undercover shopper” as I went in, even though I wasn’t undercover. The shop itself, in the basement of the grandiose, gothic Chicago Theological Seminary has charm to spare, and a billion/trillion books in every nook and cranny, crammed under pipes and piled around perilously blind corners. It really is an insanely loveable bookstore, and if I lived even marginally nearby, I would be happy to spend every waking minute in there, browsing, snooping, rummaging. As is always the case with cool bookshops, I was most drawn to the tables of books, curated to appeal to me, to draw me in. And draw me in they did. There was Zeitoun, out front and center, along with all kind of other intriguing titles I felt the need to touch and examine. It was all extremely well done, attractive and full of character. Are you getting this, Jeff Waxman? Well done!!!
At the same time, Zeitoun cost me almost $16. And Never Let Me Go was $15. Amazon.com has them for $10.85 and $10.20, respectively. Then Amazon would craftily compel me to buy a third book to get the free shipping, but even if I didn’t do that, my Amazon total WITH shipping would have been $26.03. I paid $34.12 at the Co-Op. Now, I may be a huge lover of books – AND I AM – but I also work at a non-profit and have school loans and a mortgage. The cold, hard realities of money matter to me (no matter how much I wish they didn’t). (This is where someone like my follow Culturephile Brendan ought to make his pitch for the local library.) And I will be honest, after the cashier shyly greeted me as I entered, nobody spoke a word to me while I was in the store; I didn’t feel any glowing, priceless sense of community or kinship with the other silent browsers; and the well-curated tables of staff picks aren’t really all that different from the recommendation engines Amazon works so hard to create, to say nothing of the curation of the various book-blogs I follow. Did I love my experience at the Co-Op? Absolutely, it is a fantastic, beautiful store. Will I go back there? Maybe once or twice a year, as a special, fun, excursion. But the Experience of the Co-Op is simply counterbalanced by the Inconvenience and Additional Cost of the Co-Op. Those are the sad facts.
I truly wish that they were not so. I want and need independent shops to succeed and thrive. Further, I think many, but not all, will. I'm sorry for the ones that have to pass, and will support those that remain to the extent of my limited abilities. But those that do, and will, survive must stop the terrible, piteous whining about their plight and get down to brass tacks. Innovate, or something! I will weep for the independent bookstore that goes down swinging; I have no sympathy for those that slump out of business complaining that nobody understands them. Books have a special place in all our hearts, but at the end of the day, books are, like everything else, a business (stupid).
July 6, 2010
Spurred on by the arrival of the trailer for the new (final) Harry Potter movie(s) showing up online, I had no real expectations for the latest film, but found myself pleasantly surprised. Although it’s hopelessly overstuffed and all over the place, it had visual flair to spare (flair to spare!) and some really great performances. For my money, Daniel Radcliffe is absolutely fantastic, effortlessly funny and perfect at striking the nerdy/developing hero balance, which can’t be easy. Really, the whole (also overstuffed) cast just feels relaxed and in the groove, making it fun to watch them all work. The movie surely suffers from trying to keep up with the overflowing narrative of the books which, for whatever reason, clung to the “a year at Hogwarts” format even after the events in the universe of the books became so hopelessly dire it made no sense; with all the commotion over Voldemort and Death Eaters and war and dying, the continued presence of Quiddich in both the later books and movies feels preposterous (ditch the Quiddich!). But I’m sure a billion real-life nerdlings would be up in arms should any of these canonical scenes be omitted from the film adaptations. At any rate, even though there’s no satisfying conclusion to this particular installment in the film-series, I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would.
If only I could say the same for The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which I was actually looking forward to. I thought the whole thing was 1) trying to hard, 2) painfully self-referential, and 3) felt like a crib sheet of all Wes Anderson movies but without any depth or exploration of character. Sure, part of the Wes Anderson experience is the elliptical dialogue and hinting, obscured relationships, but this was just way too far gone. The whole thing felt gonzo, slapdash (yet painstakingly, meticulously Wes Andersonily slapdash of course), nutty for no reason. Too many of the quirks of the movie were called out for laughs: “I want to be the quote-unquote 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'”; “This? This is my trademark, the thing that I do!” Barf. And double-barf. It stretched and strained for “rollicking” and “madcap,” coming up instead with “stretched" and "strained.”
My “cup-half-full” takeaway from the movie: at least Wes A. is trying to do SOMETHING different. Make no mistake, it’s not nearly different enough underneath the surface yet, but…maybe soon. There WAS stuff to enjoy in the movie – as I have enjoyed, to lesser and lesser degrees, all of Wes Anderson’s movies – but I get more and more tired of his shortcuts and stylization every time out. I don’t need him to suddenly make a gritty, realistic, cop drama, I just want some more depth and breadth and growth. Thinking about this movie, I am reminded of John Irving’s book Until I Find You, which I absolutely hated; it included every single one of Irving’s favorite themes (some might say tics) in the most tired possible way. I don’t necessarily mind the tics themselves, I just need something compelling to be going on outside (or inside) of the tics. The tics can’t be the entirety. Flicks need more than tics!